Mass Effect: Engaging Narrative With a Social Punch!

[Originally posted by me on 201 New Kids on the Blog as part of a blogging assignment for a Non-Fiction Class at the University of Illinois at Chicago)

N7 Day has come and gone, and the Mass Effect community continues to grow!

Mass Effect has developed a universe of deeply engaging narrative that has surpassed its predecessors. Nearly ten years after the release of the first game, players continue to return to it to create new war heroes, or sometimes ruthless survivors. I was actually a little late to the party, starting with the first game 2 years after the release of Mass Effect 3, however the experience was just as amazing.

I’ve played many games in the last 18 years, but being someone who is always after a good story and moving soundtrack, I feel I’ve hit the jackpot with Mass Effect. I’m not a gamer who sits down and occasionally dabbles around with a game while I have some free time. I will invest –dare I say it—hundreds of hours into a series. That’s only possible if I’m really drawn into the story. As an aspiring fiction writer, I look for what moves me, and if it doesn’t click, then I can guarantee that I won’t replay a game. Creating a universe that players yearn to go back to time after time requires excellent writing. As I’ve said, I’m on my 4th play-through of Mass Effect, so the writers at Bioware definitely did something right, HAH! It’s never boring or tedious experience mainly because Mass Effect is a story-driven game. It’s heavy in dialogue that offers different options for responses that would fit your particular Commander Shepard. Basically your responses correlate with which morality path you choose to take. In the game they call it Paragon or Renegade.

As you can imagine, there are many combinations, so it only makes sense to go back and play through all the possibilities!

When a game offers character customization, I’m 100% down for that.

Now, hand me a game with character customization AND the option to romance my squad mates all while offering cultural commentary?

Bioware, take all of my money~

Okay, okay, we get it. Mass Effect is an awesome 3rd person shooter with a great story, but what’s the big deal?

When Commander Shepard isn’t dancing in Flux on the Citadel, taking down out of control mercenaries, or Romancing their squad mates, the galaxy is under attack by an unfathomable force that reveals it’s identity and mission through the course of the trilogy. Within the plot of a galaxy under attack are examples of a society we’re all too familiar with. Even when we’re shot into the year 2183 we see cultural struggles now with many species of aliens thrown into the mix. Mass Effect reveals what existence would be like with humans as the minority,where the galactic council,in the first game, has no human representation.

Racism & Xenophobia

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Racism is very hard to ignore in Mass Effect. What’s interesting to see is that it’s not between humans, but humans and the alien races. The universe in this game has human characters of all races, but it’s never the color of their skin or their religion that’s being discriminated against, but more so them just being human.  It’s interesting looking at it now where we’re seeking equal representation in our own government, but that deals more with gender and race. I feel Mass Effect is commenting on the fact that when something is new (like intergalactic business) then there’s always discomfort. But like our people (and Commander Shepard), we’re constantly working on breaking down these boundaries so there truly is equality for everyone. I mean, the United States is one giant melting pot! The boundaries are there, but each day people work on creating a level playing field.

What’s even more amusing in the game is the fact that you have the choice to comment and respond to these racist remarks. Aboard the ship, The Normandy, there are often moments when the Executive Officer Pressly comments on his discomfort having so many aliens on the ship. You can bet on me shooting his racist booty down. Don’t like aliens on my ship? Then, sir, you may leave!

Romance Aboard the Normandy

Romance in Mass Effect is a very interesting inclusion in a game. Again, the game gives you free rein if you want to pursue any relationships or non at all. Occasionally, the game will give Shepard a little nudge that one of their squad mates is interested in them. *ahem* Liara.

(I’m sorry, Liara, but I can’t romance you every single time).

Mass Effect doesn’t hold back when commenting on race and sexuality in their universe. Just like interracial or same-sex relationships are still (unfortunately) othered because they don’t fit the cultural definition of “normal”, there is a sense of that type of discomfort in the game, however it definitely isn’t from the protagonists point of view. Other players and even critics never fail to bring that to attention, which is a great conversation to spark. Even if there is discomfort in the game, I think what makes this game such a success (aside from the story battle system, etc. etc….) is that there is more positive feedback and that you are able to see growth in the universe when it comes to cross-species relationship acceptance and yes, even political acceptance.

Mass Effect’s romances include a good selection of both humans and aliens. Although I admit that the aliens are more fun! Alrighty! Way to be an A+ Guy/Gal Shepard! The alien romances tie in so well with situations that we are familiar with. In fact, there’s often some backlash from characters in the game the very same way people have and unfortunately still do when being romantically involved with someone outside of their own race. A lot has to do with ignorance, simply not knowing, so Mass Effect actually explores how these characters deal with these still new situations.

If you’re looking for a prime example of a cross-species relationship that struggles to understand how it could work not only on a physical level, but also social, then please stop your search and take a look at Garrus Vakarian. I feel that the romance between female Shepard and Garrus Vakarian, is one of the most insightful romances, because even he questions how it’s supposed to work. I mean, I get it–Turians and Humans are in no way similar in terms of their physiology. But it’s also important to see how different people react to their relationship. Because they are so different, Garrus does mention that maybe trying it out wouldn’t be the best, and that Shepard could definitely find someone she could have an easier time with–ya know, a human?

Vakarian

While the game’s dialogue keeps it light-hearted, I feel we’re still supposed to notice how others react to the relationship. In reality, people stop and stare, but with time it becomes more acceptable. Again, it’s very much like the xenophobia–it’s new and it confuses people. I think that this universe points out the bad aspects of these experiences, but it also shows how progressive it could be.

On a matter that is also close to us, especially in recent years: in the 3rd installment of the game, Commander Shepard has two new crew members aboard the Normandy, Steve Cortez and Samantha Traynor. These characters just so happen to be same-sex exclusive, which is quite the improvement from other characters and even games where the only possibility of same-sex anything was if the character simply swung both ways. It seems relatively recent that LGBT characters began being represented in the media, and even more recent where these characters are acknowledged as fully-developed characters. In all honesty, I’ve played games where you could romance members of the same-sex, but very rarely were these characters as well-developed as the Mass Effect characters.

 

The inclusion of same-sex exclusive companions is such a positive move in the gaming universe as it includes our culture, which slowly, but surely continues to progress forward. What’s also a HUGE relief is that these characters identifying as LGBT are not treated as “tokens”. They have their own histories that are deep and complex and the writers luckily did not allow for only their identities to define them. Often times I feel that is mistake that some television shows make when including LGBT characters, who simply embody stereotypes.

I applaud Bioware for listening to their fans and including Steve and Samantha.

As much crap that Bioware gets for the way they wrote the Mass Effect 3 endings, I don’t think it should be overlooked that this game has pushed some social and political buttons. All the components that are included make for a more believable game that reaches out to a very large audience, often times an audience that desires to have their own life projected and celebrated when their own reality isn’t as ideal.

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